The Rim Country Gets A Military Outpost, Camp Reno

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Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 14

Continued from the Aug. 2 Rim Review.

Starvation was the army's primary weapon against the Indians. However, Delshay and three other Tonto chiefs with their people made camp less than a mile from the post, all asking for food. There were 240 Tontos encamped, and when ordered away they refused to leave. In a conference, the commander told them they would have to surrender unconditionally in exchange for settling permanently on a reservation. However, when the commander would not specify which lands would be set aside for them and the soldiers continued to harass the Indians, Delshay took his people and left.

Further attempts by Delshay and the other chiefs to make peace were met with the demand that they come to Fort McDowell to consult with the commander. Delshay and one other chief dared to go, but were told again that they had to surrender unconditionally. An alternative was for the Indians to become army scouts while their families were held hostage at Camp Reno as a guarantee of their loyalty. A reservation would be set up near Fort McDowell, and only then would they be given protection, food and clothing. All who did not conform were to be considered hostile and would be killed on sight. Furthermore, no Indians would be allowed near Camp Reno. When the chiefs returned to their people with these terms they were flatly rejected.

In April a change of command at Camp Reno brought an officer more open to negotiating with the Apaches. He was Lt. George Chilson. He knew the Indians well enough to understand that any agreement on their part to his conditions should not be thought of as final. Peace for the Tonto and Yavapai bands was only a respite between hostilities, a time to rest and recuperate, to be fed and protected from their enemies. In any case, under friendly skies the chiefs promised to surrender at Fort McDowell if they were given a reservation as a safe haven. In exchange for their promise they expected rations at Camp Reno until after the corn harvest in the fall, when they would move to the fort as winter approached. During this time at Camp Reno the Indians harvested hay for the post in exchange for rations. In addition they were even given a contract to transport the mail between Reno and McDowell daily, and they would be paid $25 a month in gold.

In May of 1869 Chilson made a census of the Indians at Camp Reno. Delshay was the most influential among the chiefs, less than 30 years of age, and headman for a band of 100 warriors, 40 women and 60 children. The total number of Indians there outnumbered the soldiers five to one, but with the smaller number of guns among the Indians the firepower of the two groups was equal. Peaceful coexistence soon ended with the July heat. The movements of various army units in and out of Reno were threatening to the Indians, and hunger drove several bands to renew their raids. One group from Camp Reno tried to steal six cattle that had strayed from the government herd. In the exchange of shots, a herder was wounded, and the gunfire caused a nearby camp of 80 Apaches to flee. As Chilson's troops closed in on the other camps to conduct searches, the Indians all disappeared. This was their traditional way of handling such awkward situations. This kind of activity continued through the summer, with Indians and the military playing the same games, coming and going until in August, the commander from McDowell notified them their time of loitering at Reno had come to an end. They were required to establish themselves at McDowell or become army scouts and have their families held as guarantees of loyalty. Delshay would have nothing of it and took his band into the Sierra Ancha. At one point a group of prospectors in those mountains killed 25 of Delshay's warriors.

The Tontos in turn continued to raid the herd at Camp Reno. That herd had increased because the army moved many of the cattle from McDowell up for the lush grass in Tonto Basin. The Tonto strategy was to stampede the herd, driving them into the mountains. There the families would feast, and the excess animals were driven into canyons to become feral. The Apaches could then hunt them as needed. In November the herd at Camp Reno was moved back to the area around McDowell. Delshay, with several other chiefs, petitioned under a flag of truce and asked to occupy their old place near the Reno post. It was agreed, but some of Delshay's warriors were held as hostages to ensure the chief's accountability. Incidents continued through the winter of 1869-1870. Delshay himself was wounded by a soldier when the chief barged unannounced into his tent.

Camp Reno had grown, with a sutler's store, Apache interpreters, blacksmith, carpenter, teamsters, clerks, herders and other civilians under contract with the army. An evaluation of the camp was held in February 1870, the report being positive regarding the development of the buildings, the stables, and the post's garden.

The medical facility left much to be desired, but Camp Reno had become a thriving community. However, the acting assistant inspector general had made up his mind that Camp Reno would simply be an outpost of McDowell. On March 7 half the garrison returned to the valley, and 30 troops remained to build a stockade around the buildings so that Reno now resembled a fort. [3]

In the spring of 1870 Camp Reno experienced many deadly skirmishes, even though the beginning of the end for the Indian war was at hand. On March 10 Lt. John G. Bourke was assigned to Arizona. He would become General George Crook's chief aide, and help lead an intensive campaign to crush the native dominance. Camp Reno now became simply a way station rather than a staging area in the war.

On June 2 the Tontos set fire to the haystack and the wooden buildings at Camp Reno, burning down most of the structures. After that, the location continued to be a place of rendezvous, but Indian attacks made getting over the Mazatzal Mountains on the Reno Road extremely hazardous for many years. The Reno military road was a major route for freighters bringing supplies into the Tonto Basin and Rim Country until the Apache Trail was built to serve the construction of Roosevelt Dam in 1906. Over the decades the ruins of Camp Reno melted into the earth, a place now visited by hikers and history buffs.

Notes

[3] Military posts in Arizona were seldom fortified in a way that could be called "forts." The strategy of the Apaches did not lend itself to open attack on well-staffed military posts, and fortifications were usually superfluous.

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